Medical research is identifying more and more ways people can help to prevent dementia, but can tackling stress have a positive impact?
The British Medical Journal’s Dementia UK report estimates that around 637,000 people in the UK have dementia. The annual cost of care for sufferers is £17 billion, which is more than the combined figure for heart disease (£4bn), stroke (£3bn) and cancer (£2bn).
The costs associated with Dementia are staggering, which is why so much research has been dedicated to finding its causes, with the ultimate aim of developing effective prevention methods.
The link between stress and dementia
Researchers in Sweden followed nearly 1,500 women over a 35-year period and found that frequent or constant stress in midlife was associated with an increased risk of dementia, especially Alzheimer’s disease.
The findings showed that women who reported stress at two or three examinations had a higher risk of developing dementia than women reporting no stress or stress at only one examination. The data also showed a link between stress and both early onset dementia (under 70 years old) and late onset dementia (more than 70 years old).
Previous research has shown that psychological stress could lead to cognitive decline due to changes in the body’s hormonal and immune systems. Prior to the onset of dementia, there is a phase of mild cognitive impairment (MCI), but the symptoms are not severe enough to significantly affect daily life.
Are there different types of stress?
Stress is the body’s reaction to a threat, commonly known as the fight or flight response, which involves releasing chemicals and hormones to help respond effectively. While stress is designed as a defence mechanism, it can be unhealthy if we experience it frequently or at high levels.
According to the charity Mind, there are two main types of stress:
- Acute: this happens immediately following an unexpected event and, while it is intense, it only lasts for a short period of time, up to a few weeks. Causes include a bereavement, physical assault or car accident.
- Chronic: this is a long-term condition affecting those who are under significant pressure over an extended period of time. Causes could be work pressure, family relationships or poverty.
How to reduce stress
The NHS offers plenty of advice on how to manage your stress levels. While the following tips can help, those experiencing long-term stress should seek professional medical support.
- Tackling tasks: big tasks can be daunting, so break them down into easier steps. Reward yourself for completing each step.
- Be positive: think about the good things in your life. Consider what went well each day and list three things you’re thankful for.
- Challenge unhelpful thoughts: the way we think affects our wellbeing. Try to recognise and ignore your unhelpful thoughts.
- Get active: exercising can help burn off nervous energy, lowering your stress levels.
- Talk to someone: whether you choose a friend, close relative or a helpline, talking can help when you are struggling.
- Plan ahead: identify any upcoming stressful events and compile a list of tasks that will make the day less stressful.
If you are worried about stress or dementia, book a consultation with one of our psychiatrists. Alternatively, you can find out more about dementia, memory loss and the impact of stress by visiting our MemoryClinix website.
- Reviewed by Dr Darren Cotterell, Consultant Psychiatrist, MBBCh, MRCPsych, MSc, FRCPS (Canada)
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